In 2016, Reshma Quershi 19 stunned on the New York fashion week runway as she modeled couture by Indian designer Archana Kochhar. However, she is not solely known for her elegant runway stride, but also for her ability to graciously own the runway as an acid attack survivor. Her story is one of many of these unfortunate incidents but has brought to life on an international level this pressing issue. In India, there is an estimated number of 500-1000 acid attacks each year (The Guardian). According to the Acid Survivors Foundation of India, only half of the total number of attacks come to light. Thousands still go unreported due to their occurrence in rural areas, social stigma and rampant corruption at the very bottom tiers of justice institutions like the police. Though many of the attacks do not kill, they leave severe physical, physiological and social wounds, leaving these victims marginalised. Some of these victims may be expected to continue their lives with their families. These issues and statistics in relation to acid attacks are in reference to an attack with intent, such as incidents of domestic violence; of which there is an obvious gender skew towards women. By no means must domestic violence towards man, woman or child be undermined, however for the purpose of this commentary, there will be a focus specifically upon the role of deeply engrained patriarchal attitudes as a reason for this gender skew towards women.
It may be naive to turn this into a feminist rhetoric but the truth is that wherever this happens around the world, in the East or the West, but most prominently in South Asia and Sub-sharhan Africa; the reason for it is engrained in the deeply rooted patriarchy of social gender roles, masculinity and power. I reiterate that it is not beyond our understanding why women are attacked with acid- this is often for standing up on their own feet, making decisions within their complete autonomy such as rejecting marriage proposals, being unable to provide dowry (though it is outlawed in many countries, it is still practice in rural communities where there is little legal awareness), or rejecting sexual advances. We see that the direct correlative reasons are fairly clear: i.e. these attacks of violence serve as a means of instilling “punishment” or vengeance for a woman refusing to obey the advances of a man.
The issue of patriarchy comes into play when men in these communities are brought up in a society or environment where they are taught that they are entitled to marriage, submission and sex by virtue of being men, thus bestowing upon them some sort of inherent power over the female sex. When this power comes into question, there is a release of frustration often exhibited in the form of violence, such as acid attacks, abuse, and rape. An acid attack upon a woman is intended to disfigure her body, face and skin. Whilst it seems superficial, often a lot of the essence of individual identity and confidence comes from what one initially sees, i.e. the face. For example, in an acid attack in Afghanistan, a young 16-year-old woman, Mumtaz, fell victim to such an attack by a man whose proposal for marriage she had rejected two years earlier. She cites the incident saying, ““He grabbed me by my hair and hurled the acid at my face with such vengeance, as if to say ‘now let’s see who will marry you’” (AFP). This appropriately alluded to the idea of power. The perpetrator took away the identity of a woman by scarring her face, the part of a human that is most individual to oneself, and perhaps unfortunately, determinative of how we are initially viewed in social respects, such as with regards to marriage, sex and relationships.
He has in a sense exerted a lifetime’s worth of control by barring her ability to make her own social decisions, destroying her confidence and perhaps stamping on her a new identity. It is evident that this exertion of power is motivated by these perpetrators’ preconceived notion that as the dominant sex, they entitled to exert this power. It suggests that women in some of these communities are still solely assigned the archaic role of child bearers and care-takers and by virtue of being women have little autonomy to make these their own decisions and are treated as assets traded, and once “used” or “broken” as in an acid attack, are of little “value”. This despicable practice is motivated by assigning value to women and treating them as commodities, whether this may be something similar to a ‘bride-price’ or dowry.
Steps to curb these attacks can be taken. From a social perspective, these changes will come with time, but more specifically, through education of both women and men in rural communities so as to cleanse generations of patriarchal mindsets, teach them about social and economic autonomy and further educate and give access to legal remedies which most women in such places do not know they have access to. There needs to be an active political effort to reduce corruption at all tiers of the justice system, including the police forces, which either do little to help, aggravate situations succumbing to bribery or simply are not around. The ease of availability of chemical substances is also worrying. These chemicals are often used in urban areas to clean toilets and sinks and are available on the counter; concentrated acid costs less than 50p for a liter.
The wonders that law enforcement can do are underestimated in such cases. Whilst preventative measures have been taken, they have worked to little avail. In 2013, the Indian Supreme Court ordered a limitation for over-the-counter acid sales to people over 18 who showed ID and a reason for the purchase. They also put forth that £4,000 should be paid to survivors within 15 days of the attack for preliminary medical care. It should be noted that given the rural geographical locations of such attacks, there is little medical care or legal mechanisms to license this outside big cities. (The Guardian) This often leaves families in debt, ostracized and struggling to maintain basic lives above the poverty line.
Any form of facilitation or platform for survivors in the form of government institutions or private NGOs are in fact means of greasing the wheels to rehabilitating these victims and making them feel less ostracised in society. Acid attacks and domestic violence towards women are most definitely part of a dirty power game that has as a result incapacitated many women mentally and physically. Women are not commodities and assets, nor does either sex have any inherent power by virtue of being born with certain chromosomes. This is the mindset that will prove to be the pivotal turning point both at the rural and institutional level. Facilitation must continue to restore these women’s lives so as to ensure there is some progress forward whilst social mindsets trail along slowly behind.
Anushka Sikka, Blog Writer
Malak Azer, Blog Editor